An Ember in the Ashes Page 14

Remember Barrius. Remember what you’ll be expected to do after graduation.

I jostle her shoulder. “Are you turning sappy and girly on me?”

“Forget it, swine.” She punches me on the arm. “I was just trying to be nice.”

My laugh is falsely hearty. They’ll send you to hunt me down when I run.

You and the others, the men I call brothers.

We reach the mess hall, and the cacophony within hits us like a wave—laughter and boasts and the raucous talk of three thousand young men on the verge of leave or graduation. It’s never this loud when the Commandant is in attendance, and I relax marginally, glad to avoid her.

Hel pulls me to one of the dozen or so long tables, where Faris is regaling the rest of our friends with a tale of his latest escapade at the river-side brothels. Even Demetrius, ever haunted by his dead brother, cracks a smile.

Faris leers, glancing between us suggestively. “You two took your time.”

“Veturius was making himself pretty just for you.” Hel shoves Faris’s boulder-like body over, and we sit. “I had to drag him away from his mirror.”

The rest of the table hoots, and Leander, one of Hel’s soldiers, calls for Faris to finish his story. Beside me, Dex is arguing with Hel’s second lieutenant, Tristas. He’s an earnest, dark-haired boy with a deceptively innocent look to his wide blue eyes, and his fiancé’s name, AELIA, tattooed in block letters on his bicep.

Tristas leans forward. “The Emperor’s nearly seventy, and he has no male issue. This year might be the year. The year the Augurs choose a new Emperor. A new dynasty. I was talking to Aelia about it—”

“Every year, someone thinks it’s the year.” Dex rolls his eyes. “Every year, it’s not. Elias, tell him. Tell Tristas he’s an idiot.”

“Tristas, you’re an idiot.”

“But the Augurs say—”

I snort quietly, and Helene gives me a sharp look. Keep your doubts to yourself, Elias. I busy myself with piling food on two plates and shove one toward her. “Here,” I say. “Have some slop.”

“What is it, anyway?” Hel pokes at the mash and takes a tentative sniff.

“Cow dung?”

“No whining,” Faris says through a mouthful of food. “Pity the Fivers.

They have to come back to this after four years of happily robbing farmhouses.”

“Pity the Yearlings,” Demetrius counters. “Can you imagine another twelve years? Thirteen?”

Across the hall, most of the Yearlings smile and laugh like everyone else.

But some watch us, the way starving foxes might watch a lion—hungry for what we have.

I imagine half of them gone, half the laughter silenced, half the bodies cold. For that is what will happen in the years of deprivation and torment ahead of them. And they will face it either by living or dying, either by questioning or accepting. The ones who question are usually the ones who die.

“They don’t seem to care much about Barrius.” The words are out of my mouth before I can help myself. Beside me, Helene’s body stiffens like water freezing into ice. Dex frowns in disapproval, a comment dying on his lips, and silence falls across our table.

“Why would they be upset?” Marcus, sitting one table away with Zak and a knot of cronies, speaks up. “That scum got what he deserved. I only wished he’d lasted longer so he could have suffered more.”

“No one asked what you think, Snake,” Helene says. “Anyway, kid’s dead now.”

“Lucky him.” Faris picks up a forkful of food and lets it plop unappetizingly back onto his steel plate. “At least he doesn’t have to eat this swill anymore.”

A low chuckle runs up and down the table, and conversation picks up again. But Marcus smells blood, and his malevolence taints the air. Zak turns his gaze to Helene and mutters something to his brother. Marcus ignores him, fixing his hyena eyes on me. “You were damn broken up over that traitor this morning, Veturius. Was he a friend?”

“Piss off, Marcus.”

“Been spending a lot of time down in the catacombs too.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Helene’s hand is on her weapon, and Faris grabs her arm.

Marcus ignores her. “You gonna do a runner, Veturius?”

My head comes up slowly. It’s a guess. He’s guessing. There’s no way he could know. I’ve been careful, and careful at Blackcliff translates to paranoid for most people.

Silence falls at my table, at Marcus’s. Deny it, Elias. They’re waiting.

“You were squad leader on watch this morning, weren’t you?” Marcus says. “You should have been thrilled to see that traitor go down. You should have brought him in. Say he deserved it, Veturius. Say Barrius deserved what he got.”

It should be easy. I don’t believe it, and that’s what matters. But my mouth won’t move. The words won’t come. Barrius didn’t deserve to be whipped to death. He was a child, a boy so afraid of staying at Blackcliff that he’d risked everything to escape it.

The silence spreads. A few Centurions look up from the head table.

Marcus stands, and, quick as a flood, the mood of the hall changes, turning curious and expectant.

Son of a whore.

“Is this why your mask hasn’t joined with you?” Marcus says. “Because you’re not one of us? Say it, Veturius. Say the traitor deserved his fate.”

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